What do international students do after graduating?

Britain has one of the world's most detailed higher education data offerings, with especially effective national-level data on early graduate outcomes through the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey. Among major global higher education providers, only Australia has anything comparable as an integrated national view of the outcomes of graduates.

Outcomes data through the survey for UK graduates are well publicised and are easily obtained from a range of sources, such as 'What Do Graduates Do?'.

But what do we know about the outcomes for international students? Some work has been done by organisations such as i-graduate which produced a report on the subject in 2012 but there is little formal information available.

Destinations surveying does gather international student data, but while there is a formal response target for home student data – local institutions are required to get an 80% response – there is no hard target for international students.

Everyone involved in the process recognises that this data is valuable, and that a great many people want it. However, it is also difficult to obtain – it is not always straightforward to collect information from overseas students who have returned home – and consequently costs a great deal to locate, for uncertain levels of response.

Institutions have had informal targets and some have been more successful than others. As a consequence of this variability in response rates, we don't yet have data for students from outside the EU that is considered reliable enough for release.

The hope is that in time, as processes for gathering this data improves, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Statistics Agency will be in a position to release outcomes data for non-EU graduates.

We do, however, have information for EU students: In 2012-13, 26,070 EU-domiciled graduates responded to the destinations survey. Of those, 11,290 were first degree graduates, 11,195 were masters graduates, 1,500 were PhD graduates and the rest had taken a range of other qualifications.

Business studies was the most common subject of study at first degree and masters level – although it was run close by management for masters.

Six months after graduation, outcomes for EU first degree graduates were a little different to those in the UK. EU graduates were rather less likely to be in full-time employment (39%, compared with 56% for UK graduates), but very much more likely to be in full-time study than their UK counterparts (33% compared to 11.4% for UK graduates).

They were a little more likely to be out of work (8% compared to 7.3%), but much less likely to be in part-time employment (6.8% compared to 14% for UK graduates).

When it came to employment, there were also differences: 77.5% of EU graduates were in professional level employment after six months, compared with 66.6% of UK graduates, and consequently, EU first degree graduates were more likely to assume roles in management, in engineering, in IT and computing, and in the arts than their UK counterparts – and much more likely to get a job in finance and, particularly, marketing and sales.

They were about as likely as UK graduates to have a job in science, and a little less likely to be in social and welfare roles, education or health. The most common jobs for new EU graduates entering work were in marketing, as software developers, as general business professionals, in financial analysis and advice, as junior doctors or as nurses.

In addition, 38% left the UK to work – largely elsewhere in the EU. Of those who stayed in the UK, 38.8% were working in London six months after graduation. Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge and Glasgow were other hotspots for EU graduates to enter work.

Of the EU graduates who went on to further study, 70% went on to do a masters compared with 42% of UK graduates who went on to masters. The EU graduates were also rather more likely to take a PhD, but, unsurprisingly, very much less likely to go on to a postgraduate certificate in education.

The information we currently have available makes it clear that overseas students – or at least EU graduates – do have rather different outcomes to UK students. All this fuels a desire for good quality information on overseas student destinations to fill what increasingly appears to be a crucial information gap.

Current efforts to examine outcomes may be on the way to meeting that information need, and when they do, we will be in a much better position to understand the outcomes and needs of international students, to support them more effectively post graduation and to make the UK an even more attractive place to go to university.

Charlie Ball is deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, UK. This article was first published this month in the UK Higher Education International Unit's International Focus newsletter.